ROME – Pope Francis began his livestreamed Holy Week liturgies Sunday saying the suffering Jesus endured along the way to the crucifixion was intended to assure humanity that we are not alone – and that the current COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak is an opportunity to love and serve others, as Jesus did.
“When we have our back to the wall, when we find ourselves at a dead end, with no light and no way of escape, when it seems that God himself is not responding, we should remember that we are not alone,” the pope said in his April 5 homily for Palm Sunday, regarded as the beginning of the Church’s Holy Week.
Speaking during a livestreamed Mass in a nearly empty St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis noted that, like many people struggling with fear and uncertainty, Jesus himself experienced “total abandonment in a situation he had never before experienced in order to be one with us in everything.”
“That is the extent to which Jesus served us: he descended into the abyss of our most bitter sufferings, culminating in betrayal,” even the feeling of being abandoned by God, Francis said.
As COVID-19 continues to spread and claim lives, Francis said that in the face of this tragedy and “the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts,” Jesus speaks to each person, saying, “Courage, open your heart to my love. You will feel the consolation of God who sustains you.”
Pope Francis spoke during the traditional Palm Sunday Mass, which this year was livestreamed from inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Public Masses in Italy have been suspended since March 8, and in line with those restrictions, the Vatican chose to celebrate Holy Week and Easter liturgies without the faithful.
Rather than celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the basilica’s main altar, like he usually does when the basilica is full, Francis presided from the Altar of the Chair, which sits behind the main altar, directly below the Holy Spirit window by famed baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The opening rite of the Mass and procession with palms into the basilica, which normally takes place in St. Peter’s Square and commemorates Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey, this year was done at the Altar of Confession, which is adjacent to the Altar of the Chair.
Next to the altar during Mass were the historic Salus Populi Romani (health of the Roman people) icon, usually housed in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, and the so-called “miraculous crucifix” from the St. Marcellus church on Via del Corso, a typically crowded shopping street.
Traditionally turned to by Romans in times of plague, the sacred items were both used by Pope Francis during a March 27 prayer event and Urbi et Orbi blessing in an empty St. Peter’s Square.
In his homily, Pope Francis noted that the way in which God saves mankind is not through a mighty salvific gesture, but through service.
“God saved us by serving us. We often think we are the ones who serve God,” but God is the one “who freely chose to serve us, for he loved us first,” the pope said, explaining that Jesus served those around him not only by washing the disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday, but through his own death, during which he took on the punishment of humanity’s sins, without complaining.
Jesus did this “purely out of love,” the pope said, noting that as Jesus was crucified, God did not deliver him from suffering, but upheld him and strengthened him in it.
Noting that Jesus suffered both betrayal and abandonment in his final hours, Francis said he was betrayed not only by the ones who handed him in and denied him, but also “by the religious institution that unjustly condemned him and by the political institution that washed its hands of him.”
Jesus, the pope said, also suffered “extreme desolation” in his prayer, shown by his exclamation on the cross of, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
All this was done out of love, Francis said, insisting that in return, each person “can refuse to betray him for whom we were created, and not abandon what really matters in our lives.”
“We were put in this world to love him and our neighbors. Everything else passes away, only this remains,” he said, saying the coronavirus crisis is a summons “to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others.”
Pope Francis urged families, many of whom are currently confined to their homes under quarantine restrictions, to stand before the crucifix and ask God, “for the grace to live in order to serve. May we reach out to those who are suffering and those most in need. May we not be concerned about what we lack, but what good we can do for others.”
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